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ABS Plastic Fantastic Desk Set 


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ABS Plastic Fantastic Desk Set 

Written By: Charles Piatt 



Circular saw (1) 

Rvobi 18V, 5 V2" blade (from Lowe's or 

mail order) 

Deburring tool (1) 

Drill (1) 


Plastic bender (1) 
Available from FTM Inc. 
(http://thefabricatorssource. com). Some 
other clever plastic-working tools are 
available here, too. 


/ use the Vaughan Extra-Fine Cross-Cut 
BearSaw. 9V2". 17tpi. Check your local 
home improvement store. 

Table saw (1) 

Ultimate jigsaw (1) 

DeWalt DC330 XRP with Bosch T101BF 

blades (available from Lowe's or mail 


ABS plastic sheet (1) 
1/8" thick 

© Make Projects 

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ABS Plastic Fantastic Desk Set 


Last night I dreamed of a magical material that would be bendable like metal, as easy to 
shape as wood, and would never warp, split, or splinter. It would be washable, would never 
need painting, and would last almost forever. 

This morning, when I sat down at my desk, the stuff from my dream was right in front of me. 
It fact, it had been there for several months, ever since I made a pen rack from ABS. 

ABS is acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, a plastic that really does have dreamlike qualities. If 
you've ever picked up a Lego block, you've handled ABS. Car stereo installers and model 
railroad buffs sometimes use it, but craftspeople and hobbyists generally have been slow to 
adopt it. You can saw it, drill it, sand it, whittle it, and drive screws into it, and it never 
warps, splits, or splinters. Best of all, you can bend it quickly into complex shapes by using 
a simple gadget that costs around $200. 

To acquaint you with its pleasures (and a few quirks), I'll describe how to build a page stand 
— a simple work aid that facilitates copy-typing by holding pages upright beside your video 
monitor. After that I'll describe a portable CD caddy and a pen rack, and will suggest more 
projects you can make. 

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ABS Plastic Fantastic Desk Set 

Step 1 — Prepare your plastic. 

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ABS Plastic Fantastic Desk Set 

© Make Projects 

• Pieces of ABS a couple of feet 
square are available online, but 
you'll save money if you truck on 
down to your nearest plastic supply 
house and buy it like plywood, in 
4'x8' sheets. To discover whether 
you actually have a nearby plastic 
supply house, search for "plastic 
supply" in your yellow pages or 
Google Local. 

• Hobby Line has ABS sheet and a lot 
of extruded structural shapes for 
model making. eStreetPlastics has 
limited stock at good prices. Regal 
Piedmont Plastics has a huge 
inventory and many supply centers 
around the nation, but you'll have to 
collect it yourself, and they may 
not be willing to cut 4'x8' sheets 
into smaller pieces. 

• Stock colors include black, white, 
and "natural," which is beige. 
Sheets usually are textured on one 
side, which is the side that should 
face outward, since it is more 
scratch-resistant than the smooth 
side. To build the page stand, you 
will need white ABS, 1/8" thick. 

• Because the plastic surface you 
end up with is the surface you start 
with, you'll have to be careful not to 
scuff or scratch it while working. 
Clean your bench thoroughly before 
you begin, taking special care to 
remove any metal particles, which 
will tend to become embedded in 

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ABS Plastic Fantastic Desk Set 

the plastic. 

• Use wooden shims in the jaws of 
your vise, and avoid resting the 
plastic accidentally on any sharp 
tools or screws. Working with ABS 
requires a clean environment and a 
very gentle touch. 

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ABS Plastic Fantastic Desk Set 

Step 2 — Make preliminary cuts. 

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ABS Plastic Fantastic Desk Set 

— 2 

!— 2"- 

• You'll bend up on the blue dashed 
line, and down on the red dashed 
lines. To make rounded inner 
corners, drill V2" holes (blue 
circles) before cutting. There's 
nothing else to it: no fasteners or 
additional sections. Very often an 
ABS object can be fabricated by 
making multiple bends in a single 

• Begin by cutting a 7"x16" rectangle 
out of a larger piece. Because ABS 
is not brittle, you cannot just drag a 
knife to score a groove and then 
snap it, as you can with acrylics. A 
saw is necessary. 

• The bad news is that if you use a 
table saw, the plastic will tend to 
melt and stick to the blade. This 
will lead quickly to kickback, in 
which the blade grabs your 
workpiece and hurls it at you 
powerfully enough to break bones. 
If you have extensive experience 
using a table saw, you are actually 
more vulnerable, because the 
reflexes and cautions you have 
developed while dealing with wood 
will not be adequate for working 
with soft plastic. Please take this 
warning seriously! 

• Avoid using a table saw to 
cut plastic. If you must 
use one, install a special plastic- 
cutting blade. 


© Make Projects 

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ABS Plastic Fantastic Desk Set 

• Fortunately there is a simple 
answer: buy a plastic-cutting blade, 
which has a larger number of 
thicker teeth to absorb the heat. 

Step 3 

• The blade I use is a Freud 80T, but there are others. If you use a blade that is not suitable, 
it will start to accumulate smears of plastic on its flat area. This is the final warning you 
will get. Clean that blade with a solvent such as acetone, and never use it for ABS again. 

• To make long, straight cuts you can also use a panel saw (big and expensive, but safe and 
accurate), or a handheld circular saw guided with a straightedge clamped to the sheet. 
This is the method I prefer. A battery-powered circular saw has enough power to do the job 
and it is less likely to melt the plastic. 

• For smaller cuts, a band saw is trouble-free. Since ABS is soft, you can also use hand 
tools with very little effort, especially a Japanese-style, pull-to-cut saw, which makes 
exceptionally clean cuts. When pulling it, be careful that it doesn't jump out of the cut and 
across your hand. 

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ABS Plastic Fantastic Desk Set 

Step 4 — Mark and shape the ABS. 

• Mark your cutouts. After you have your 7"x16" rectangle, clean its edges with a deburring 
tool, then place it textured-side down and use a fine-point water-soluble pen to draw the 
shape that you're going to take out of the piece. 

• Afterward, you can wipe the lines away with a damp cloth. Don't use a permanent marker, 
as the solvents to clean it will dissolve the plastic. 

• Drill holes at the inside corners. ABS tends to open a fissure when you bend it at any 
inside corner where you don't have a smooth radius. Therefore, you need to make V2" 
holes at these corners, as shown on the plan (shown in step 2). 

• I use a template (available from any stationery store) to mark the circles. If I don't take 
this step, I tend to forget to drill the holes. 

• A regular V2" bit is too aggressive for drilling ABS; it will tend to jam itself into the plastic 
within one turn of the drill. Forstner bits work better. 

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ABS Plastic Fantastic Desk Set 

Step 5 

• Cut out the piece. After drilling the holes, cut around the edges of the shape using a band 
saw, hand saw, or jigsaw. The plan shows some of the outside corners rounded, in 
addition to the inside corners, but this is a matter of taste. 

• My favorite sawing tool is a DeWalt XRP jigsaw using Bosch blades, designed for 
hardwood or plastic. This will cut complex curves in ABS as easily as scissors cutting 

• Saw slightly outside of each line, so that if the blade wanders you can use a coarse 

metal file to straighten the edge afterward. 

• My favorite sawing tool is a DeWalt XRP jigsaw using Bosch blades, designed for 
hardwood or plastic. This will cut complex curves in ABS as easily as scissors cutting 

• Remove cut marks and add bend marks. Remove any lines that you no longer need 
because they will become harder to erase after you apply heat during the bending process. 

• Clean the plastic with a soft sponge and dishwashing liquid (never use solvents such as 
xylene or acetone), then make just a couple of dots to remind you where you will position 
each bend. 

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ABS Plastic Fantastic Desk Set 

Step 6 — Bend the ABS. 

• This is the fun part. You need a plastic bender, which is an electric heating element 
mounted in a long, thin box that you place on your workbench. 

• The bender I use is made by FTM, a company that offers all kinds of neat gadgets for 
working with plastic. Their cheapest bender is just over $200 with a 2' element. You can 
get a 4' model for about $50 more. Be careful; the bender will inflict serious burns if you 
happen to rest your hand on it accidentally, and since it has no warning light, you can 
easily forget you have left it plugged in. Gloves are definitely advisable. 

• Simply lay the plastic over the hot element for a brief time (25-30 seconds for 1/8" ABS, 
40^4-5 seconds for 3/16", and up to 1 minute for W). If you overheat the plastic, you'll 
smell it, and when you turn it over, it will look like brown melted cheese. Naturally you 
should learn to intervene before the plastic reaches that point. 

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ABS Plastic Fantastic Desk Set 

Step 7 

• ABS is ready to bend when it yields to gentle pressure. Take it off the bender and bend it 
away from the side that you heated. If you bend it toward the hot side, the softened plastic 
will bunch up inside the bend, which doesn't look nice. 

• You can work with it for about half a minute, and when you have it the way you want it, 
spray water on it to make it set quickly. Alternatively, if you need more time, you can 
reheat it. Since the force necessary to bend the sheet increases in proportion with the 
length of the bend, a long bend can be difficult, so I usually apply a loose vise at intervals. 

• When making multiple bends in ABS, the sequence is important. If you don't think ahead, 
you may find that a bend you just made creates a shape that won't lie flat on the bender 
anymore, leaving you unable to continue. The page stand design is fairly simple, but you'll 
be in trouble if you don't check the plan and make the bend on the dashed blue line after all 
those on the dashed red lines. 

• When creating your own designs, it's safest to model them in paper or cardboard first. 

• TIP FROM THE MAKE LAB: If the $200 pricetag for a professional bender is too 
steep for you, don't worry, you can build one. Tap Plastics sells a bare 3' heating 
element, and with a little plywood, tinfoil, and fiberglass tape (also from Tap) you can make 
your own bender for about $65. 

• Use two pieces of W plywood, placed 3 A" apart to make a raised channel on another piece 
of plywood. Then, cover the entire channel with several layers of thick tinfoil and a few 
layers fiberglass tape. Lay the heating element in the channel, plug it in, and start bending. 
For complete video instructions, check out . 


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ABS Plastic Fantastic Desk Set 

Step 8 — Bend a CD caddy. 


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• One type of object that's difficult to make with ABS is a box. If you cut a cross shape (like 
the Red Cross logo) and then bend the 4 arms of the cross upward to make 4 sides of a 
box, their edges will not align accurately, and you will have no easy way to join them 
together — unless you try plastic welding. Some people claim they can make good plastic 
welds using appropriate equipment, but I've never seen a really neat weld made by hand. 

• Rather than try to force ABS to form conventional box shapes, it's easier to make 
unconventional box shapes that are appropriate for ABS. The diagram shows a plan for a 
very durable 2-piece traveling CD caddy. Many soft binders are sold for CDs, but I like to 
keep CDs in their jewel cases, and I wanted an indestructible hard-shell caddy that would 
let me do this. 

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ABS Plastic Fantastic Desk Set 

Step 9 

• My box-making strategy was to bend 1/8" ABS to form a 3-sided shell around thicker end 
pieces of 7/32" or %" ABS. I attached the shell by driving small screws through it, into the 
edges of the end pieces. Since ABS has no grain, it tolerates this easily, so long as you 
drill adequate guide holes first. 

• Start by bending the shell to fit the end pieces. Don't be surprised if you have to deviate 
slightly from the lines in the plan. Mostly the plastic stretches around the outside of each 
bend, but a little shrinkage occurs on the inside too. You lose perhaps 1/32" on the inside 
of a bend in 1/8" plastic, although this may vary depending on how hot the plastic is when 
you bend it. Some trial and error is inevitable. If the fit is too tight or too loose, you can 
reheat the bend and lean on it to push it in the direction you want. 

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ABS Plastic Fantastic Desk Set 

Step 10 

• You'll need #4 stainless steel sheet metal screws, flat-headed, 5/8" long, for the next step. 
Assuming you have drilled holes in the shell as the plan suggests, countersink them very 
gently to avoid eating too deeply into the plastic, then hold each end piece in place and 
mark its edge by poking a pen through the holes in the shell. 

• Remove the shell and drill guide holes in each end piece, centered within the thickness of 
the plastic. Because ABS does not compress like wood, the holes must be larger than you 
might expect; otherwise, the plastic will swell around the screw. A 3/32" bit is just right for 
a #4 screw. 

• After assembling the box, the last step is to make a lid. Because I dislike hinges and 
catches, I chose to fabricate a sleeve that fits snugly around the box to protect its 
contents. The slick surface of the plastic allows the sleeve to slide on and off with a 
smooth, gliding action, even though it fits tightly. 

• Cut and bend a rectangle to form 3 sides of the sleeve, and use another thicker piece of 
ABS as the fourth side. Make 2 bends so that the rectangle fits around your box, then 
attach the fourth side of the sleeve with #4 screws using the same technique as before, 
and the job is done. 

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ABS Plastic Fantastic Desk Set 

Step 11 — Bend a pen and pencil rack. 

• ABS makes it trivially easy to 
create desktop accessories. With 4 
bends in a single rectangle, and 
some V2" holes, I created a nifty 
little rack so I can see immediately 
if anyone runs off with one of my 

Other projects 

Many items in the kitchen or bathroom are ideal for ABS, such as a toothbrush stand, a spice 
rack, or a holder for soap and shampoo to hang on the side of your bathtub. Of course you could 
buy these items, but by making your own you end up with something that is exactly right for your 
particular needs. 

ABS is very flexible, but a couple of longitudinal bends will make it extremely rigid (comparable 
to aluminum after it has been formed into a channel or a tube). You can even make bookshelves 
out of ABS if you add a bend along each of the 2 long edges of a strip. Similarly, you could make 
a stand for your video monitor, or even a chair, if you're feeling ambitious. At my workplace, I 
found that after bending ABS into a channel shape, it was strong enough to support a pair of 20- 
Ib. compressed gas cylinders. 

This project first appeared in MAKE Volume 10 . page 100. 

This document was last generated on 2012-10-31 06:59:45 AM. 

© Make Projects 

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